Think of a revolutionary mining operation setup in the outer space, directed to dig out the prodigious trove of riches, which might include a huge amount of precious metals and minerals! Doesn't it seem like a Sci-fi movie like 'Armageddon' or 'The Martian'? However, this mind-boggling or bizarre concept has been taken into serious consideration by the fraternity of science and technology these days and thus, it is blooming as a progressive industry indeed.
Asteroid Mining Corporation, a spearheading UK based startup has estimated that few metallic asteroids might contain huge amounts of; for instance, 1,00,000 tonnes of platinum and 10,000 tonnes of gold. Such massive lodes of natural riches might be able to source the operations of varied industries including IT and space-based manufacturing, thereby downsizing the cost incurred on construction of space nations. However, there are innumerable hurdles that we need to overcome for ensuring that space mining gets a smooth and steady take off.
The world-renowned physicist, Michio Kaku has written in his book; 'The Future of Humanity', that we will be exposed to a bonanza by mining the asteroids, which he addresses as the 'flying gold mine[s] in outer space.'
NASA refers to asteroids as "cosmic leftovers" of the formation of solar system which, took place almost 4.5 billion years ago that contains huge amounts of iron, nickel, cobalt, carbon along with various other precious metals like gold, platinum, palladium, ruthenium, rhodium, osmium and iridium. Though all these substances are being found on our Earth, the reserve is degrading fast and thus, the search for replacing them is gaining more and more prominence worldwide. Scientists have stated that there are 16000 asteroids in the solar system which have been labeled as "near-Earth objects". This indicates that the orbits of these asteroids cross the Earth's path and furthermore, astronomers have already identified 12 neighbouring asteroids to boast the maximum potential for mining. Considering these stats, Kaku has predicted that the asteroid mining industry will operate similar to a cattle supply chain of the 19th century, where the cattle were huddled from the Wild West region and drove to Chicago, the center of meat processing from where it is further sent to other urban locations. He wrote, "The moon would be like the Chicago of the future," where valuable minerals collected from the asteroid belt will be taken for processing and then shipped to our planet Earth.
Progress Stories in the Arena of Space Mining
Deep Space Industries, headquartered in Silicon Valley, USA have broken down the entire process of asteroid mining into four phases naming: prospecting, harvesting, processing and manufacturing. Alike them, many other large corporations in the USA have started claiming their stakes within the multitude of asteroids present in the solar space. With the proven know-how of sending spacecraft to the asteroids for acquiring samples, Japan has already successfully landed their Hayabusa spacecraft on asteroid 25143 Itokawa way back in the year 2005, which collected granular samples and returned back to Earth after a span of 5 years while, addressing a journey of around 3.7 billion miles (6 billion kilometers), as noted by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).
Another tale of exemplary that has drawn attention of people across the world is Luxembourg, a tiny European nation that emerged as the upsurge of satellite communication industry in the 1980s. Needless to say; the advent of asteroid mining has emerged as the 21st-century gold rush. Considering the same, other leading companies including Planetary Resources, backed by Larry Page (Google's founder) and Bryan Johnson (Braintree's founder) have already started making significant progressive moves in this genre. In 1985, Luxembourg launched the Societe Europeenne des Satellites, which signified the upsurge of satellite communication industry in the nation. This, in turn, helped the nation to gain extensive experience in various aspects of space mining like the legal framework, financial backing and regulatory structure required. Thus, it eventually positioned itself as the host for startups and entrepreneurs to deploy their insights in crafting avant-garde inventions, thereby becoming the worldwide hub for the fast-growing space mining industry. The industry of private space exploration has flourished with the potential of earning trillions of dollars. As per estimation of the Federal Aviation Administration, the space tourism sector will cultivate a total earning of around $1 billion over the next few years. The Deputy Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Etienne Schneider, has stated that "Our goal is to put into place an overall framework for the exploration and commercial use of resources from 'celestial bodies' such as asteroids, or from the moon,".
Deciding on the Course of Mining Operations for Utmost Cost-efficiency
As stated by the CEO of another spearheading company with the core ambition of moon mining naming Shackleton Energy, Jim Keravala, a myriad of asteroids comprising the inner solar space are extremely rich in metals including many of platinum group. Those metals are expected to have a huge demand in the genre of electronics and fuel cells. Thus, the most likened possibility is to mine these materials in the outer space and sent back to the Earth. However, it would primely depend on the estimated expenditure to be incurred for mining those materials and transported back to our planet compared to the expenditure to be incurred on mining those materials in the Earth itself.
Still, a Long Way to Go...
While categorizing the hurdles into two broad categories; they are mainly the legal and technical challenges. Considering the technical bottlenecks, mining companies have already introduced revolutionary ways of gathering information on the asteroids of our orbit for attaining knowledge on their composition. Then after, they will be required to establish cost-effective ways of launching a spacecraft which, is capable of driving out the entire mining extraction process. The legal challenges are, however, a bit more tricky. Presently, we are just at the beginning stage of developing the legal framework, while defining the rights of mining certain asteroids and certainly, much of the route is still to be traversed through.